Salome Andronikashvili: A Georgian Enigma

Salome Andronikashvili

What does a muse of Russian artists, a philanthropist supporting poets in Paris, a cookbook author in post-war London, a prominent socialite in St. Petersburg, a fashion editor of a premier French magazine, a British diplomat’s wife in the USA, and a Georgian aristocrat have in common?

They all come in the form of one incredible woman – Salome Andronikashvili, a Georgian princess, whose life is an inspirational example of resilience, grace, gumption and true grit.

London’s beautiful old streets and houses store untold stories of extraordinary people – poets and artists, politicians and industrialists, heroes and villains, princes and paupers, people who were born on this soil and those who made Britain their home later in life. One such untold story is that of Salome. A rare beauty, a woman of great intelligence and many talents who left an unforgettable impression on everyone she met, a woman known as ‘the last muse of the Silver Age of Russian poetry’.

Motherland

Salomea with her daughter, Irina/ sputnik-georgia.ru

Born in 19th century Georgia, then a part of the Tsarist Russian empire, to Georgian prince, Ivane (Niko) Andronikashvili and his Russian aristocrat wife, Lidiya Pleshchyeva-Muratova, Salome grew up surrounded by love, beauty, comfort, and the prospect of a bright and breezy future.

However, life had other plans for Salome. At the age of 18, she was sent to St. Petersburg to marry a tea merchant, Pavel Andreyev, twice her age, who she never loved. The couple separated while Salome was pregnant with their daughter, Irina (later Baroness Nolde, an active member of the French resistance), and never saw her husband again.

The young princess, now called Salomea Nikolayevna Andronikova, quickly

adapted to independent life away from home and became a prominent socialite, holding a glamourous Literary Salon, regularly hosting St. Petersburg’s bohemian, artistic and intellectual elite. Salome’s magnetic beauty, quick wit and charisma enchanted both men and women alike: she became a muse for many.

Salomea – the Muse

Anna Akhmatova, a famous Russian poet, describes her as mesmerising, with gleaming almond eyes under rainbow-shaped brows, a gracefully slim figure holding her gentle head on a swan-like neck. “Salome is always better dressed, always a bit more alive, standing a bit taller than everyone else.” Akhmatova gifted Salome with her poetry collection ‘Rosary’, inscribing in it: “In the hope of friendship”. Later, when they became friends, Akhmatova sent Salome her new anthology of poems – ‘White Flock’ with loving dedication.

By the age of 30, the Georgian princess was the inspiration for many popular Russian artists: Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Zinaida Serebryakova, Konstantin Somov, Alexander Yakovlev, Boris Grigoryev, Sergei Chekhonin and Vasily Shukhayev. These insightful portraits, encapsulating moments in her daily life with brush and paint, have immortalised Salome for future generations.

Salome’s modesty, warmth and intelligence, combined with her vibrant and adventurous spirit, appealed to the biggest talents of that time. Nadezhda Teffi, a famous writer, who met Salome on her book tour in 1913, wrote in her ‘Memories from Moscow to the Black Sea’ (1917): “The jewel of these evenings, as usual, was Salomea Andronikova – not a writer, not a poet, not an actress, not a ballerina and not a singer – an all-around ‘nots’. Yet, she came across as the most interesting woman in our circle”.

One of Salome’s lifelong friends, Russian poet Ilya Zdanevich, penned many letters full of adoration for her, which are now preserved in his archives. Another admirer of Salome’s, the outstanding Osip Mandelstam, dedicated to her ‘Salominka, Madrigal and the Lost Cameo’, which have become a treasured legacy of 20th century Russian poetry.

Revolution and Emigration

The Red Revolution turned Salome’s life upside down. St. Petersburg was the epicentre of events that would come to define the political scene of the continent for the rest of the century.

Salome had to flee to Crimea, then to Baku, Azerbaijan, with her then-lover and friend, poet Sergey Rafalovich and her daughter, taking only a suitcase of her amazing wardrobe.

The iconic dress collections, luxury palatial living, champagne-filled gatherings of the cosmopolitan elite were all engulfed by the tides of time.

Financial necessity prompted Salome to move from Baku to Tbilisi, her place of birth, where she edited a literary publication, Orion, for over a year. But the Bolshevik flame was spreading to Georgia fast, and in 1919 she emigrated to Paris, with her new lover, French diplomat Zinovi Pechkoff, the protégé and adopted son of the famous Maxim Gorky (born Maxim Peshkov, five-time nominee for a Nobel Prize in Literature, renowned Russian writer and political activist and founder of the Socialist Realism style).

Life in France

K.Petrov-Vodkin. Portret of Salomea Andronikova 1925 | liveinternet.ru

In Paris, Salome started working for the Lucien Vogel fashion magazine, earning 1,000 francs a month (about £3,000 in today’s money). She became an active patron of Russian artists, gathering a network of well-settled émigrés around her. Thanks to Salome’s efforts, talented Russian artist Zinaida Serebryakova managed to escape Soviet Russia. Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the greatest Russian poets of all time survived total deprivation and poverty due to Salome’s relentless support. In addition to giving Tsvetaeva 200 francs from her salary and selling tickets for her poetry readings, Salome also organised monthly charity events to collect donations for Tsvetaeva and her family. Over 120 letters are testament to this incredible “intellectual friendship” and camaraderie.

Soon after settling into a new life in France, Salome and Zinovi Pechkoff split up but managed to maintain a lifelong friendship. Zinovi later rose to the rank of Brigadier

General in the French army and became an ardent supporter of Charles De Gaulle.

Salome soon met her future husband Alexander Halpern, an admirer, gifted lawyer, close friend and private secretary to the Menshevik leader, Alexander Kerensky.

They registered their marriage in 1925, and Salome adopted a new name, Andronikov-Halpern. The couple, however, continued living separately, Halpern in London and Salome in Paris, until the late 1930s, around the time she received devastating news about the execution of her brother, Yasse, by the Bolsheviks in Stalin’s Russia.

A Diplomat’s wife,
The English chapter

In 1940, Salome and Alexander moved to New York, where Halpern was stationed for seven years as part of a British mission (allegedly an MI6 agent). A true cosmopolitan, Salome adapted quickly and thrived in her new environment. The role of a British Diplomat’s wife suited her well. Salome looked after her grandson, whom she took with her to the safety of America, away from wartime France. In 1944, Salome’s mother, Lydia, who she deeply respected, passed away in Georgia. “I take after my father physically, but my character is very much similar to my mother’s”, Salome later wrote in a letter to a close friend, Papuna Tsereteli.

Unlike many aristocrats, Salome found cooking enjoyable. Soon after relocating for good to London in 1947, Salome started gathering recipes, expertly adapting them to foods available in post-war London. Although the couple lived in affluent Chelsea, at N39 Chelsea Park Gardens, Salome was frustrated to see the ubiquitous poverty and food shortages around her. Over the course of a few years, she put together a cook-book entitled ‘Good Food from Abroad’, which was published by Harvill Press in 1953.

In London, Salome and Alexander led a busy social life, hosting writers, artists, philosophers and politicians, among whom Sir Isaiah Berlin, Moura Budberg, Anthony Blunt, Zinovi Pechkoff, Oskar Kokoschka and his mistress Anna Kallin, were the closest.

Retired, but not resting…

In 1956, Salome lost her husband. She inherited Halpern’s pension, which required her to be frugal. With her usual unbreakable spirit, Salome continued living an active life – “running around, never stopping”, as she wrote to friends, and sub-letting a part of her Chelsea flat (bought for her by Sir Isaiah Berlin) to Anna Kallin. Age was taking its toll, though. Plagued by ill health, painful arthritis and diminishing eyesight, Salome carried on. She lived her life with optimism, never feeling abandoned or lonely, and never complained. Salome was full of zest for life, looking ahead and wanting to live forever. She kept herself busy, helping others and epitomising the beauty of the Silver Age until her last breath in 1982, at the age of 93.

Salomea Andronikova , 1910

Known for never taking herself too seriously, Salome often joked with her friends: “All my life, I believed I was a muse, when in fact I am simply a cook”. Others, such as famous Armenian poet Tumanyan, certainly disagreed: “Women of her calibre are born once in a century”.

Salome Andronikashvili’s ashes were scattered,  as  per  her  wishes, on Trafalgar Square, in the heart of the city that became her home for 35 years.

What can we learn from Salome’s story? How does one woman leave such a lasting echo in the lives of everyone she met? She lives forever in their canvases and sketches, in their poetry and prose, in memoirs, letters and even recipes. What was her secret? We may never know who Salome was, but she is a vivid testament that strong will, perseverance, optimism and kindness can help you survive anything.

Maya Zedelashvili-Nichols